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Irish Need Happier Homecomings

A lot of conversation is taking place about how the Notre Dame football team consistently underachieves while its counterparts in men’s basketball constantly overachieve (at least during the regular season).

Notre Dame has lost a minimum of two games at home every year since 2003.

It’s a main reason why Mike Brey has been deservedly named Big East Coach of the Year three times the past five years (along with several National Coach of the Year awards last year), and might be standing at the head of the line for the hardware again this March. It’s also why in his 12 years at Notre Dame, Brey has seen six different head football coaches at Notre Dame, including George O’Leary’s four-day regime and interim head coach Kent Baer’s stint for the 2004 Insight Bowl.

Consequently, Brey recently referred to himself as “the loosest coach in America” — a sharp contrast to football boss Brian Kelly, whose facial color shades on the sidelines became a popular source of conversation last season. It also underscores the vast difference in expectations between the two programs:

• A successful season in basketball is generally defined by making the 68-team NCAA Tournament. This will be the eighth time in 12 seasons under Brey it will occur. In football it’s about not merely reaching a berth to the BCS, but also winning in the top-tier bowl. The Irish have not achieved such a distinction since a 24-21 victory against 10-1 Texas A&M in the 1994 Cotton Bowl to cap an 11-1 season.

• The football team has an alarming proclivity to beat itself. This season it finished 118th among 120 teams in turnovers margin. Basketball has been heralded for maximum efficiency and annually ranks among the nation’s leaders in assist-to-turnover margin, or fewest turnovers. This year the Irish are third nationally in fewest turnovers per game and ninth in assist-to-turnover ratio.

• Notre Dame football must recruit the elite, and if it does not finish with a consensus top-10 finish at the end of a recruiting cycle, the apocalypse supposedly is looming. In basketball, the Irish take a mid-major approach to recruiting, landing one diamond in the rough after another with stellar evaluation of how they fit into the parameters of the overall program. Since the 2002-03 season, the lone Notre Dame player drafted was Luke Harangody in the second round. “No drama,” Brey told the New York Times of the type of players the program attracts. “We avoid the hard-to-manage guys.”

All of this is, again, apples and oranges. However, there is one area where Irish football needs to achieve the type of regular season excellence basketball possesses: Protecting the home turf.

Since the 2006-07 school year, Notre Dame is 23-17 (.575) at home in football and 98-7 (.933) in basketball. In three of the last five seasons, the Irish had a perfect record in Purcell Pavilion, highlighted by 45- and 29-game winning streaks.

While defeating numerous ranked teams — highlighted by No. 1 Syracuse on Jan. 21 this year — grabs most of the headlines, what is particularly notable is seldom do the Irish ever lose at home to a lower-tier team. Against the seven collective weakest Big East foes since 2006-07 — DePaul, South Florida, Rutgers, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John’s and Cincinnati — Notre Dame is a collective 24-1 (.960) against them at home since 2006-07, with the lone setback occurring on Valentine’s Day 2010 to St. John’s, 69-68, when Harangody was sidelined with an injury.

We bring this up because it’s not like Notre Dame’s disappointing football record at home is because of repeated setbacks to superpowers. Since 2006, it has included two defeats to Navy, Air Force, a 2-8 Syracuse team, Connecticut (which just started playing FBS level at the turn of the century), Boston College, Tulsa and South Florida. In other words, Big East conference football has been more of an albatross than its more vaunted basketball brethren.

Year after year, the foremost goal we list for a Notre Dame football season is to finish unscathed at home. It has not happened since 1998, a school record 13 straight seasons. Second place is eight straight from 1990-97 and 1956-63. In other words, the Irish have one unbeaten season at home in the last 22 campaigns.

The 2012 slate in Notre Dame Stadium features Purdue (Sept. 8), Michigan (Sept. 22), Stanford (Oct. 13), BYU (Oct. 20), Pitt (Nov. 3) and Wake Forest (Nov. 17).

Not a cakewalk by any means, but a 6-0 ledger is a realistic aspiration. Notre Dame has found a way to lose in the closing seconds each of the last three years to Michigan. Stanford has won three straight against the Irish. Can’t use high academic standards as an alibi for that one, and it doesn’t hurt that Andrew Luck also has departed. Equally important will be holding serve on the other four.

Finishing unbeaten at home is not a birthright, and any victory against an FBS foe seldom comes easy. However, a trend toward turning the corner often begins with defending the home field.

In the 62 football seasons since 1950, Notre Dame ran the table at home 11 times, or an average of once per 5.6 years: 1955, 1964, 1966, 1970, 1973, 1977, 1980, 1987-89 and 1998.

In nine of those 11 seasons the Irish finished in the top 10. Seven of those nine were in the top 3, with consensus national titles in 1966, 1973, 1977 and 1988.

The two low marks were finishing No. 22 in the 1998 AP poll with a 9-3 season, and No. 17 in 1987 at 8-4.

Baby steps must usually begin in the home.

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